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Living with HIV in PNG – one woman’s reality

Living with HIV in PNG – one woman’s reality

Friday 18 August, Toronto- Tiny Pauline Banis, from a small village on Papua New Guinea’s border with West Papua, first recognised AIDS related symptoms in her husband in 2002. He refused to talk to her about it, but when she became pregnant in 2003, she took an HIV test at the hospital. Despite having two more tests, she did not receive the results until December 2004, by which time both her ten-month-old baby and husband had died.

In Toronto two years later, Banis stands out in her bright yellow dress, amidst the huge crowd of 25,000 people attending the biggest ever International AIDS Conference with fierce pride and strength.

She seems undaunted by the scale of the event, where celebrities like Bill Clinton and Richard Gere wander about and where getting from one end of the conference centre to another requires battling long queues across a bridge and down seven sets of escalators.

Banis is also a survivor of domestic violence. She used to work with the health services looking after refugees from West Papua, but had to quit after repeatedly turning up to work covered in bruises.

“My husband slept around and was very aggressive towards me, yet when he died of AIDS his family blamed me and wouldn’t support me anymore,” says Banis. “They tried to take my other two children, who are HIV negative, but I wouldn’t let them.”

These days, she is a volunteer with the Sandaun Provincial AIDS Committee. She has learnt to live with the stigma of AIDS, choosing not to notice it, just as she refuses all sympathy. “I don’t want people to pity me, it makes me more embarrassed. I just get on with my life.”

Banis does not receive treatment as she says it is not available in her village, but she manages to lead a healthy life with support from her mother and sisters. “We all eat out of the same pot and they are not sick. But when I go to my neighbours or other family members, I don’t enter their houses as I know that if something ever happens to them, I will be the one they blame.”

She works hard in her garden and goes fishing to feed her three children, one of whom she adopted. When they complained of discrimination in the village, she took the matter to the district court but then could not bring herself to take out a court summons against her little nephews.

“This conference in Toronto is my first exposure to other people living with HIV and my first opportunity to share my story with others who have experienced similar situations,” says Banis. “In my village, no one has come out because of fear of discrimination.”

ends

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